On one level, there aren’t a lot of surprises among this year’s four conference finalists. Three of the teams went into the playoffs as the top seed in their division, and the only one that didn’t — the Winnipeg Jets — were the second-best regular-season team in the league. In terms of the pre-playoff seeding, this year has been remarkable free of upsets.
But step back a little further and consider what last season looked like, and this year’s final four takes on a decidedly unexpected mix. You’ve got the Capitals, who haven’t made a conference final in 20 years. But at least Washington made the playoffs last year. None of the other three teams even managed that.
So if three teams that missed the playoffs in 2017 (or didn’t even exist) can make the conference finals, what might next season hold? Could at least one of the 15 teams that missed this year’s post-season could be one of the last teams standing this time next year?
History tells us that it’s possible and maybe even likely. The question is which team is best positioned to do it. So let’s take those 15 playoff misses from this season and divide them into three groups based on their chances for next year. As luck would have it, the Lightning, Jets and Golden Knights give us three handy categories to use.
The Tampa Bay Tier
The Lightning missed the playoffs last season, falling short by a single point. But they weren’t anybody’s idea of an underdog in 2017–18; oddsmakers had them as co-favourites to win the Atlantic before the season began.
So let’s start there — with five teams that have only been out of the playoffs for one year, and could make a relatively quick return to top contender status.
Why they could make it: While things fell apart in 2017–18, this is a team that won the Central just a year ago and still has most of the core from three Stanley Cups. It’s also worth remembering that the Blackhawks didn’t really fall out of contention this year until Corey Crawford missed time. If he’s healthy next year, it’s not hard to imagine them being back in the conference finals next year.
Why they won’t: That championship core is older and more expensive now, which complicates things, and the Central looks brutal with the Jets and Predators blocking the way out. And it’s not like this team just missed this year; they were almost 20 points back.
Why they could make it: They went to the conference final in three of the last seven seasons, and are just one year removed from posting three straight 100-point seasons. They’ve parted ways with some of the players who made those seasons happen, but they still have Henrik Lundqvist.
Why they won’t: It’s not clear they want to. Jeff Gorton wants to rebuild, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean tearing it all down, the Ryan McDonagh trade suggests that the focus isn’t on the Cup in 2018–19.
Why they could make it: They have Connor McDavid. That’s a good start. And they were one win away from the 2017 conference final, so in theory there’s not much room to make up. Cam Talbot had an off year, but his history suggests he’ll rebound. And while there are holes in the roster, Peter Chiarelli has all off-season to fix them, and once he does the Pacific doesn’t look all that daunting.
Why they won’t: You saw the part about Chiarelli making trades, right? And like the Hawks, the Oilers have lots of ground to make up to get back in the playoffs, let alone win two rounds once they’re there.
Why they could make it: As we pointed out recently, this year’s Blues have some uncanny similarities to last year’s Lightning. They looked like contenders for most of the first half before fading, so if they can stay healthy and stop trading their stars at the deadline, they should be back in the playoffs next year. And if they are, a return to the conference final they last visited just two seasons ago wouldn’t be shocking.
Why they won’t: Like Chicago, their road to the final four would go through Winnipeg and Nashville. And as always, until Jake Allen puts it all together or they find someone who can, goaltending will hold them back.
Why they could make it: It’s easy enough to forget after a brutal season, but the Canadiens were the Atlantic’s top team just a year ago. Most of that roster is still here, and if Carey Price can get back to his old form, they could be a tough out.
Why they won’t: No team in this section was further away from a playoff spot this year. Right now, it sure feels like 2016–17 was the fluke, not 2017-18.
If we had to pick one team from this group:
The Oilers. It’s tempting to go with Chicago and all those Cup rings, but the Oilers seem like a team that could get back on track quickly as long as nobody messes them up even worse this summer. Not that that would ever happen.
The Winnipeg Tier
The Jets made the leap to elite team so quickly and seamlessly that in hindsight it all feels inevitable. And it’s true that some were predicting the Jets’ rise for years. But heading into this season, the Jets were generally viewed as a team with some good young pieces that hadn’t put it all together yet, and maybe never would. Oddsmakers ranked them sixth of the seven Central teams as far as their chances of winning the division, and their Stanley Cup odds on opening night were 50-to-1 — believe it or not, the same as the Sabres.
So for this group of five, let’s look for five teams that boast a young roster that should click someday, but hasn’t yet.
Why they could make it: Like last year’s Jets, the Hurricanes’ roster is young, deep, and consistently undone by mediocre goaltending. Both teams finished with 87 points in 2016–17, so the talent gap may not be as big as you’d assume. Find this team a goalie, and maybe they can finally explode just like Winnipeg did.
Why they won’t: There isn’t a Connor Hellebuyck lurking on the roster now, so they have some work to do there. And unlike the Jets, who stubbornly stuck with the status quo year after year, the Hurricanes are in the process of changing just about everything in the organization right now.
Why they could make it: They’ve got plenty of talent up front, including a rookie star in Mathew Barzal who figures to be even better next year. The goaltending is an issue, but we’ve seen teams fix that before. The blue line will be a bigger challenge, but Lou Lamoriello will get to work on that as soon as he arrives.
Why they won’t: “They fixed their terrible defence in one off-season” isn’t a sentence you see very often in the NHL. Also, John Tavares might be on the way out, in which case all bets are off.
Why they could make it: The 2017–18 Flames always seemed like a team that should be better than its record, and most of the core is young enough that they could improve even without adding reinforcements. They also have a new coach, which can sometimes provide a nice first-year boost.
Why they won’t: Bill Peters doesn’t exactly have a track record of getting teams to the playoffs, so let’s not assume he’s going to work any miracles here. Mike Smith‘s injury cost them last year, and at 36 there’s no reason to pencil him in for a fully healthy season.
Why they could make it: They had 92 points last year, so they don’t have as far to go as most teams we’re looking at. They’ve got plenty of offence up front, and the blue line has some pieces. Goaltending is an issue — that’s kind of a theme with this whole list — but Ben Bishop has taken a team to the Cup final, and Kari Lehtonen‘s $5.9-million cap hit finally comes off the books. If rookie head coach Jim Montgomery can find his footing quickly, they could push right back into the Central mix.
Why they won’t: Montgomery is the team’s third coach in three years, and college coaches don’t have a long track record of NHL success. The Stars seem best suited to play high-scoring, high-event hockey, and that’s not a style that tends to win in the playoffs. Dallas feels like a team that should be back in the playoffs next year, but anything more than that feels optimistic.
Why they could make it: With 96 points, they were the best of last year’s non-playoff teams. They’ve got lots of young talent, with their three top scorers all being 24 or younger and Aaron Ekblad on the back end.
And sure, Dale Tallon’s recent track record is spotty. But in his last season in Chicago he took a young team that hadn’t made the playoffs in five seasons and got them to the conference finals. Is this Panthers team that good? No, but they may not be all that far off.
(Besides, there won’t be another expansion draft until 2020, so they don’t have to worry about randomly giving away two of their best players for nothing.)
Why they won’t: Roberto Luongo is coming off another strong season, but he’s 39 and has trouble staying healthy, so you wonder if that comes back to bite them.
If we had to pick one team from this group:
We’ll go with the obvious choice in the Panthers, although the Flames are tempting.
The Vegas Tier
And now we get to the real challenge. The Lightning going from missing the playoffs to the conference finals wasn’t much of a shock. The Jets were a bigger surprise than you probably remember it, but the signs were there. But the Golden Knights? All the revisionist history about rigged expansion-draft rules aside, nobody saw this coming. The Knights were supposed to be the worst team in the league, or somewhere close to it. The sheer impossibility of what they’ve done is a big part of what makes them the best (or maybe worst) NHL story in years.
So if the Knights could pull off a miracle, can one of these five teams? It’s extremely unlikely, but in a world where an expansion team can contend for a Cup in year one, we can’t rule anything out. We’ll have to reach for that optimism, though.
Why they could make it: They did it last year. Man, the spring of 2017 feels like a long time ago when you’re talking about the Senators. It was before the Matt Duchene trade, and the Erik Karlsson rumors, and their owner threatening to move the team. It was also before they traded away several veterans and embarked on what sure seems like a rebuild, so their odds of a repeat performance seem slim.
But still, this is mostly the same core that went on that 2017 run. That’s assuming that Karlsson sticks around, of course, and there’s a good chance he doesn’t. But if the Senators can find a way to keep him and Craig Anderson has a better season, the pieces are there. We saw it a year ago.
Why they won’t: That’s some big ifs. If Karlsson isn’t extended, the team almost certainly has to trade him by next year’s deadline, and Anderson is about to turn 37. They shouldn’t be as bad as they were this year, but there’s a ton of work to be done in Ottawa.
Why they could make it: If you really, really squint, you can see a bit of the Jets in Arizona. Wait, poor choice of words. Sorry, Winnipeg fans, you know what I meant.
The Coyotes have plenty of young talent, some of it elite. It hasn’t really clicked yet, and this season was a write-off by November. But maybe next season is the one where it all comes together at once, and the Coyotes skip past the middle ground and head right for the elite. It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds, since unlike most of the league’s other also-rans, they’re not worried about their goaltender.
Why they won’t: There’s just too much ground to make up. Even if Oliver Ekman-Larsson stays and all the young players made big leaps, they still need a William Karlsson story or two to go from 70-point bottom-feeder to contender.
Why they could make it: They have one advantage over the other teams in this section, in that they’re not in the middle of a rebuild and don’t seem to want to start one. We could debate whether that’s the right direction for the team, but if they hold onto their veterans, there’s some decent talent here. Maybe that’s enough.
Why they won’t: It’s not enough. The Red Wings have questionable goaltending, an old core, and nowhere near enough young talent on the way to patch the holes. Maybe they fix some of that in the summer, but it’s not like Ken Holland’s recent off-season track record is all that strong.
Why they could make it: They finally won the lottery, so they’ll add an elite talent in Rasmus Dahlin to a blue line that desperately needs help. Add in a full, healthy season from Jack Eichel, a breakthrough from Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt‘s rookie campaign, and either a rebound year or a trade windfall for Ryan O’Reilly, and you’ve got something to build on.
Sure, they finished dead last in their conference. But the last four teams to do that all made the playoffs the very next year, and some of those had more holes than the Sabres do right now.
Why they won’t: Even if Dahlin is a Norris candidate from day one (and he almost certainly won’t be), the blue line still needs work and the goaltending is a question mark. Jason Botterill and Phil Housley already had a year to work with this roster and couldn’t transform it, so expecting a sudden turnaround from them now seems farfetched.
Why they could make it: Uh…
OK, we can do this. Here goes: A healthy Brock Boeser scores 40 goals. Bo Horvat climbs into the top tier of young centres. Jacob Markstrom (or maybe Thatcher Demko) gives them better-than-expected goaltending. Elias Pettersson lives up to all the hype and then some. Olli Juolevi arrives and helps the blue line. And they use the windfall of Sedins cap money to make a series of smart bets in free agency and on the trade market, and not just on the next Loui Eriksson.
If all that happens, and also like 10 other things, they make the playoffs. From there, who knows?
Why they won’t: That’s way too long a list for all of it to come true. More realistically, some of it does, the team exceeds expectations, Canucks fans have reason for optimism and the 2018–19 season is a building block.
If we had to pick one team from this group:
Ah, what the hell. We’re in “need a miracle” territory, so let’s swing for the fence. The Sabres pull it off.